How Nebraska volleyball plans to pack Memorial Stadium

WHEN THEY SCORED tickets final spring to Volleyball Day in Nebraska, Jan Merrill and her daughter deliberate out a street journey. They’d drive 2½ hours from Elgin, Nebraska, on winding roads by means of tiny cities to succeed in Lincoln, the place they’d splurge on crab legs at an area restaurant, watch the volleyball match and keep in a single day in a resort. Possibly they’d get a pedicure the following day.

Merrill and her daughter, Melissa Borer, have attended Nebraska volleyball video games since 1995, when Melissa was 11. The journey from Elgin would at all times be value it when Merrill (no relation to the author) and Melissa received to the sport and crammed right into a packed enviornment to observe their favourite staff. So Borer knew the Aug. 30 occasion could be in contrast to something they’d ever witnessed — the Husker volleyball staff taking part in open air at night time beneath the lights at a packed Memorial Stadium in entrance of greater than 90,000 followers extra accustomed to touring there to observe soccer video games.

Their seats for Wednesday night time’s match are in Part 28, alongside eight relations, together with Borer’s 91-year-old grandmother. However Merrill will not be there. Lung most cancers has unfold to her mind, clavicle and kidney, and he or she’s at residence in hospice care, navigating backwards and forwards to her mattress with a walker. To the surface world, it might sound outlandish {that a} volleyball match may present any form of respite for a household within the grips of illness and disappointment, however for Borer, it briefly will. And it is cliché to say that the wildly profitable Nebraska volleyball staff has been the North Star in a state craving any type of sports activities identification previously decade.

However it has been.

When Borer visits her mother, she sits subsequent to her, pulls up outdated Nebraska matches on YouTube and holds her hand. Generally, Merrill wakes up and glances on the tv.

“Good work, women,” she’ll say.

FOR GENERATIONS, NEBRASKANS have boasted that on soccer Saturdays, Memorial Stadium turns into the third-largest metropolis within the state. On Wednesday, the place will develop into volleyball metropolis. Greater than 91,000 persons are anticipated to fill the stadium to observe two matches, doubtlessly setting a report for the most-attended ladies’s sporting occasion on this planet. The report, 91,648, was set in March 2022 at a UEFA Ladies’s Champions League match in Barcelona.

The occasion is so momentous that Nebraska’s chancellor canceled faculty for the day and the Board of Regents gave the OK to promote beer. (Alcoholic drinks are usually not allowed at soccer video games.)

“I do not know methods to correctly outline simply how large that is,” Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts mentioned final week. “Except [the football team is] undefeated after we play Michigan in Week 5, I do not know of something that is going to be larger.”

Seven months of planning, day-after-day, has gone into this, with staging conferences from police, fireplace, rescue and site visitors to concessions, the band and advertising and marketing. Lindsay Peterson, the director of volleyball operations at Nebraska, mentioned climate monitoring began about 10 days out as a result of it is too unpredictable within the Midwest — particularly with the warmth index, which topped 115 levels in Lincoln most of final week. No one needs to even discuss what may occur if mild rain hits the Taraflex courtroom constructed on a stage close to the north finish zone. The newest forecast requires sunny skies, a excessive of 82 and winds of 10 mph.

The impetus for this complete manufacturing? A rivalry, after all. Final September, almost 500 miles away in Madison, Wisconsin, the Badgers — Nebraska’s largest nemesis and the staff that beat it within the 2021 nationwide championship — moved a match to the Kohl Middle and drew a crowd of 16,833, breaking Nebraska’s attendance report for a regular-season match.

Of all of the issues that captivate Nebraska sports activities followers, it is their attendance data. A couple of years in the past, when the soccer staff’s six decades-long sellout streak was in jeopardy, boosters and company sponsors purchased unsold tickets to maintain the report going. Nebraska volleyball hasn’t needed to fear about that; eight of the highest 9 crowds in NCAA volleyball historical past are matches which have concerned the Huskers.

However the Badgers’ one-upping the report nagged at Nebraska followers, who despatched a flurry of emails to teach John Prepare dinner urging him to take his staff someplace to reclaim their report. After the season, he plotted. He initially contemplated Pinnacle Financial institution Area, Nebraska’s basketball venue. It wasn’t sufficiently big.

After a few conversations, Alberts instructed Prepare dinner there was one place they might go: Memorial Stadium.

Prepare dinner was apprehensive. What in the event that they offered solely 10,000 tickets? He ultimately agreed with one situation: That they carry in a musical act to carry out after the match to assist draw an even bigger crowd. Tickets went on sale in late April — $25 for adults, $5 for youngsters. Greater than 82,000 seats offered inside three days. No musical act had been introduced but.

The night time will characteristic 4 in-state groups in a celebration of the state’s affinity for volleyball. The Huskers play Omaha at 7 p.m. CT on Wednesday on the Large Ten Community and Nebraska-Kearney will face Wayne State at 4:30 p.m. in an exhibition. Nation singer Scotty McCreery will carry out afterward. The in-state groups, which function beneath considerably decrease profiles and budgets, will obtain $50,000 to journey to Lincoln.

Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield instructed reporters final month that he was excited not only for Nebraska, however “all people in that stadium,” and their sport.

Alberts mentioned the general presentation will exceed something they do for residence soccer video games.

“We imagine now we have one alternative to inform the story of volleyball within the state of Nebraska, and it isn’t simply the Huskers,” he mentioned.

The concept of Wednesday’s occasion may need taken form due to a volleyball rivalry, however the origin story of Volleyball Day in Nebraska began a very long time in the past and would not occur with out a beloved soccer program that constructed a convention of successful and conditioned its fan base to anticipate success. It additionally would not occur with out a few eccentric, pushed coaches who seized upon that tradition to construct a volleyball program that has produced a legion of All-Individuals, eight Olympians and a convention of its personal relationship again to the Seventies. Mix that with a fan base craving a purpose to cheer whereas soccer and males’s basketball fell on laborious instances, and you’ve got a program that has develop into the envy of ladies’s sports activities throughout the nation.

“I might been instructed [about Nebraska volleyball], however seeing it your self is totally totally different,” mentioned Laney Choboy, a libero from Raleigh, North Carolina. “You’re feeling the assist right here each single time you step exterior.”

IN THE EARLY 2000s, after protecting Nebraska volleyball for a few years on the Omaha World-Herald, I instructed Prepare dinner that I used to be transferring to the Cornhusker soccer beat full-time and would not be writing about his staff anymore.

Prepare dinner stared blankly.

“Is {that a} demotion?” he requested.

Prepare dinner would by no means knock soccer. He says one of many biggest days in his 2½ many years at Nebraska was Dec. 8, 2001, the Saturday night time when the volleyball staff escaped with a dramatic five-set win towards Florida to advance to the nationwide semifinals and Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch turned the third Husker to win the Heisman Trophy.

Prepare dinner loves soccer, and sometimes attends soccer practices. He simply by no means acquiesced to the notion that his staff was beholden to anybody, or that it ought to take a backseat.

His first yr as head coach at Nebraska in 2000, he spoke to the Beef Membership, a bunch of Cornhusker soccer boosters, and talked about an upcoming journey to China when somebody within the crowd requested him how they’d pay for it. “Effectively, it is coming from the Beef Membership,” Prepare dinner recalled the person saying. “We are the ones paying on your journey, simply so that.”

Prepare dinner bit his lip and instructed himself that sometime his staff was going to make that man eat his phrases, and develop into a program that pays for itself. Final yr, in response to Nebraska’s monetary report back to the NCAA, the volleyball program had a web income of $233,454. Prepare dinner instructed ESPN that volleyball truly netted $1 million, a quantity, in response to the college, that features seat premiums and donations particular to volleyball.

In addition they made extra money in ticket gross sales than every other ladies’s staff — of any sport — within the Energy 5 from 2021-2022, in response to knowledge from the Knight Fee on Intercollegiate Athletics at Syracuse College. It was a big margin: $2.1 million, adopted by Louisville ladies’s basketball at $1.2 million. (UConn ladies’s basketball, which competes in a non-Energy 5 convention, offered $2.4 million in tickets, however UConn’s bills, together with journey and training, created a web income of minus $5.4 million, in response to the college’s monetary disclosure data to the NCAA.)

When Nebraska launched its volleyball program in 1975, it was merely a footnote for a football-consumed state. Bob Devaney already had led the Cornhuskers to 2 nationwide championships, Johnny Rodgers already had gained a Heisman Trophy and Tom Osborne was laying the muse for his program’s rollicking dominance of the Nineteen Nineties. Now the volleyball staff has offered out 306 consecutive regular-season matches, and like soccer, holds 5 nationwide championships.

However Prepare dinner and former coach Terry Pettit know that volleyball did not get there by itself.

“Nebraska doesn’t develop into a serious participant with out a profitable soccer program,” mentioned Pettit, who got here to Nebraska in 1977. “Since you needed to have the sources. In the end, then, you needed to be in the best conferences.”

The evolution of Nebraska volleyball started with Pettit scheduling matches on the identical day as soccer video games, urging these leaving the stadium to come back watch his staff. He even hung volleyball indicators within the loos to advertise matches.

And whereas Osborne and Devaney are credited with inspiring little boys to dream of taking part in soccer for Nebraska, Pettit is the person who made Nebraska women wish to play volleyball. Pettit grew up in Indiana capturing basketballs in haylofts and barns. He knew how a profitable faculty program may change the tradition of a state, and what younger individuals needed to be.

Some athletes had been higher in different sports activities, however they got here to Nebraska to play volleyball as a result of they could not resist the chance to be in that atmosphere. That is tradition, he mentioned.

Pettit laid the groundwork by being accessible to each highschool coach, whether or not they had been from Omaha or the tiniest city within the panhandle. He’d maintain clinics in locations like rural Dunning, within the Nebraska sandhills, the place three women would present up.

“You do it to develop relationships,” Pettit mentioned. “Possibly Hooper, Nebraska, goes by means of 25 years and would not have a participant that may play on the college staff, however then alongside comes Jordan Larson.”

Larson, who hails from a city of 830, led Nebraska to the 2006 nationwide championship and was MVP on the USA volleyball staff that gained its first gold medal within the Tokyo Olympics. Larson will be a part of Prepare dinner’s teaching employees as an assistant this fall.

Pettit says the distinctive factor about volleyball in Nebraska is the success in any respect ranges of the state, highschool, junior faculty, small faculty, Division I, and the way they’re complementary to one another. “It is an organism, the place all of the components thus far have acknowledged it is a large benefit for the opposite components of the organism to have success,” he says.

By the mid-Nineteen Nineties, Nebraska volleyball was a scorching ticket. Merrill and her daughter made their first journey to Lincoln for a volleyball sport in 1995, the yr the Cornhuskers gained their first nationwide championship. Merrill and Borer drove all the best way from Elgin, Nebraska, walked as much as the ticket workplace and had been instructed the match was offered out.

“My mother was asking, ‘Is there something we are able to do?”’ Borer mentioned, “and this gentleman overheard it and mentioned, ‘We now have some further tickets. This is two tickets.’ Then after that … we began buying methods to get tickets, networking or getting them off the road.”

Pettit — who would go away with one nationwide championship, 21 convention championships, six journeys to the ultimate 4 and 649 wins in 23 seasons — had constructed such a powerhouse program that when he made the choice to retire, he was capable of persuade a profitable Division I coach at one other college to come back to Lincoln as an affiliate head coach and ultimately be his hand-picked successor.

In 1998, Nebraska performed Wisconsin for a visit to the nationwide semifinals. Prepare dinner, a former NU assistant, had lifted the Badgers from a staff that performed preseason tryouts to an up-and-coming powerhouse.

Nebraska gained that night time, and Pettit and his spouse, Anne, went out to dinner with Prepare dinner and his spouse, Wendy. When Pettit proposed the concept of Prepare dinner leaving for Nebraska, he may sense Wendy Prepare dinner’s apprehension. The job would include large expectations, and Prepare dinner must exchange a legend.

Prepare dinner could not say no.

“I assumed this might carry out the perfect I could possibly be,” Prepare dinner mentioned, “and I needed that problem. I needed to take it to a different degree.”

COOK WANTED TO be a soccer coach. Simply out of school, he landed a job instructing geography at Francis Parker Excessive, a personal faculty in his hometown of San Diego, California. It got here with a free condo beneath the situation that he coach women’ basketball, softball and volleyball.

He knew little about volleyball, and needed to learn books to get a grasp on the fundamentals. In his six years teaching Francis Parker volleyball, he went 162-18, gained two state championships and had a 90-match successful streak.

After a three-year stint at Nebraska, he took an assistant teaching job with the U.S. males’s staff in 1992, serving to cause them to a bronze medal within the Barcelona Olympics.

His bio at Nebraska says that his philosophy will be summed up in two phrases: Dream large. When he turned the Cornhuskers’ head coach, one among his objectives was to promote out the NU Coliseum. Prepare dinner’s first staff went undefeated in 2000 and gained a nationwide championship over … Wisconsin.

The next season, the sellout streak started. It must be famous that this was additionally across the time that the soccer staff started its downslide. Longtime data fell throughout this unprecedented two-decade interval that included six teaching modifications and 9 shedding seasons.

Volleyball, in the meantime, needed to come to phrases with the truth that its product had grown a lot that it was not accessible to a lot of the state.

The NU Coliseum, redesigned particularly for volleyball, was an intimate venue. It seated 4,030 individuals, and when the place received loud — it was virtually at all times loud — opponents mentioned it felt as if the group was on prime of them.

Maisie Boesiger, a sophomore libero from Firth, Nebraska, remembers her dad taking her to her first volleyball match on the Coliseum when she was a bit of woman. They arrived a bit late. Nebraska had simply scored a degree after they had been racing up the steps, and he or she heard an enormous roar. She mentioned it was the loudest cheering she’d ever heard. “As soon as I received to the highest,” she mentioned, “I used to be like, ‘Dad, what do you need to do to play right here?’ I used to be simply in shock. I could not imagine how superior the group was, the assist of the followers. And I keep in mind him telling me, ‘It’s a must to work, actually, actually laborious.'”

From 1976 to 2013, Nebraska went 511-36 on the Coliseum. However in 2011, when Nebraska introduced that its basketball groups had been leaving the Bob Devaney Sports activities Middle for Pinnacle Financial institution Area, Osborne, Nebraska’s athletic director on the time, needed volleyball to make Devaney their residence. A reporter known as Prepare dinner and requested what he considered the transfer, and Prepare dinner mentioned that if the sector wasn’t adequate for basketball, why is it adequate for volleyball?

The story ran, and the telephone rang within the volleyball workplace. It was Osborne, and he needed to see Prepare dinner instantly. Prepare dinner calls Osborne a mentor, and mentioned he cherished working with him as a result of he “is aware of how coaches really feel.” However on that individual day, Osborne was not calling to alternate pleasantries.

“I stroll over to his workplace,” Prepare dinner mentioned. “His secretary, she goes, ‘I’ve by no means seen him so mad … He is so mad his veins are coming out of his neck.’ I stroll in there, and he is like, I believe he mentioned, ‘Judas Priest, John. What are you doing?'”

Osborne, Prepare dinner mentioned, had a gathering with the Board of Regents, and he did not wish to blow their plans. However Prepare dinner had many issues concerning the outdated enviornment, and the concept of filling 13,000 seats.

Prepare dinner mentioned he had a listing of issues that needed to occur to the Devaney Middle to facilitate the transfer, and so they wrote them on a notepad on his desk.

He needed an enviornment retrofitted for volleyball, and Nebraska pumped $20 million right into a 7,907-seat facility. The varsity additionally added 5 skyboxes that price $40,000 apiece yearly, and stuffed these. This previous summer time, Nebraska put 402 extra seats within the enviornment, and it’s nonetheless the hardest ticket within the state.

“We most likely underbuilt,” Prepare dinner mentioned. “Taking a look at issues now, we most likely did not dream sufficiently big.”

PERHAPS THE BEST individual to clarify the maintain that volleyball has on the state of Nebraska, particularly in rural areas, is Dani Busboom Kelly. She’s the top coach of Louisville now, and has taken the Cardinals to 2 nationwide semifinals the previous two seasons and fell to Texas in final yr’s nationwide championship sport.

She met Prepare dinner greater than 20 years in the past, at a camp when she was 14. Busboom was a multisport athlete from Cortland, Nebraska, who’d go on to win 4 state titles in three totally different sports activities. However she was not one of many blue-chippers at that camp. So you may think about her shock when Prepare dinner approached her.

“He requested to see my palms,” she mentioned, “which I assumed was so bizarre.”

She was too younger to understand the gears delivering Prepare dinner’s head, the plans of her changing into a setter. Busboom was supposed to go away for a softball match in Colorado that day, however Prepare dinner requested her mother and father if she may keep till the top of camp.

She acquired an award, and her household drove by means of the night time to get her to the match. However her trajectory was already set. She was a volleyball participant. She joined a greater membership staff and began competing at the next degree. She knew that if a Nebraska scholarship by no means got here, she’d nonetheless have an opportunity to play Division I volleyball.

So again in Cortland, Busboom educated and educated to develop into the perfect setter she could possibly be. She was supplied a scholarship to Nebraska, and naturally accepted. She performed in each match as a freshman and spent three seasons at setter.

After main Nebraska to the nationwide championship sport as a junior — the Huskers misplaced to Washington — Prepare dinner requested her to change to libero, which focuses on protection. She accepted the job, and Nebraska gained its second nationwide championship.

Her mother and father nonetheless have Husker volleyball season tickets. Busboom Kelly mentioned volleyball is a “lifestyle” within the fall in Nebraska. Her program at Louisville now has a season ticket ready checklist, and he or she mentioned she’d additionally wish to enterprise out of the confines of her staff’s venue, presumably taking part in a match on the KFC Yum! Middle, which seats about 22,000.

“You do get away [from Nebraska] and also you suppose, ‘This place is particular,’ and that is particular,” she mentioned. “However it’s moments like the sport at Memorial Stadium that you simply understand that we nonetheless have room to develop and there is nonetheless one program main the pack.”

Volleyball Day in Nebraska has piqued the curiosity of coaches in different sports activities, too. Patty Gasso, who has led Oklahoma to 3 straight NCAA softball championships, has mentioned she want to comply with Nebraska volleyball’s lead and play a sport at OU’s soccer stadium. An Oklahoma spokesperson instructed ESPN there have not been any latest updates on that risk.

ON A RECENT August afternoon, Prepare dinner assembled a gathering along with his employees earlier than follow. On the highest of the whiteboard was a message written in marker: WE ARE THE ENGINEERS OF BELIEF. It was the second week of follow for a staff with no seniors and the No. 1 recruiting class within the nation, together with Gatorade nationwide participant of the yr Harper Murray.

He is imprecise about how follow goes, or how his lineup will shake out. He says it is too early to inform. They appear good in follow, however how will they deal with the stress within the ultra-competitive Large Ten?

Prepare dinner attended a gathering with all the top coaches on the college earlier within the day, and he mentioned he feels a momentum shift within the athletic division beneath Alberts, who was named AD in 2021.

Prepare dinner just lately spoke to the soccer staff. New coach Matt Rhule requested him to, and Prepare dinner gave a 25-minute Energy Level presentation. He instructed them that day-after-day was fourth and 1, similar to it is 13-13 within the fifth set for the volleyball staff.

There was a short dustup between the applications this summer time, a minimum of on social media. In late July, Nebraska’s coaching desk was closed for the week — Alberts mentioned it shuts down so staff can go on trip and meals will be restocked — and former Nebraska volleyball participant Lauren Stivrins tweeted a photograph of volleyball gamers standing in entrance of a desk of catered meals that was for the soccer staff.

“Coaching desk is closed, and solely soccer is allowed to eat right here,” she typed in a tweet that was later deleted. “Make it make sense.” It included hashtags #titleIX, #womensrights and #shedding report.

Alberts and Prepare dinner mentioned every staff knew prematurely that the coaching desk could be closed. Soccer introduced in a catered meal for a certain quantity of individuals; volleyball was given “Husker bucks” to purchase their very own meals.

“It was unlucky,” Alberts mentioned. “I can guarantee you with our volleyball program, they get something they need.”

Prepare dinner downplayed the incident, and mentioned there was no controversy or unwell will with the soccer program. Two days later, Rhule posted a photo of him posing with the volleyball staff at a desk. Rhule purchased them lunch.

Prepare dinner mentioned that he and Rhule “speak and share stuff.” Prepare dinner has taken him to a rodeo, and so they’ve gone out to dinner. Each of them know what it is wish to really feel the load of a complete state. Earlier than the season even begins, Prepare dinner hears followers telling him that they’ve purchased tickets to the nationwide semifinals. His staff misplaced within the Candy 16 to Oregon this previous December, and it was seen as a down yr by many. The Huskers had been 26-6, and it was the primary time in a decade that they did not advance to the regional finals.

The Cornhuskers scheduled a spring exhibition match this yr in Central Metropolis, Nebraska, inhabitants 3,032. Followers lined up the night time earlier than tickets went on sale, and offered out the two,100-seat enviornment in 52 minutes.

Prepare dinner, whose staff is off to a 3-0 begin, mentioned he’d relatively have individuals intensely care about his program than face the other.

Whereas the soccer staff hasn’t been to a bowl sport since 2016 and males’s basketball has misplaced a minimum of 20 video games in three of the previous 4 seasons, volleyball has develop into arguably probably the most beloved program within the state. Prepare dinner is the largest success story. No present coach, males’s or ladies’s, is as revered, or regarded, as he’s.

“You take a look at the 2 large sports activities,” Prepare dinner mentioned, “and so they’ve struggled. So it has been a terrific alternative for girls’s sports activities, and we simply occurred to be ready the place we have been fairly profitable.

“We have been a ray of hope for Nebraska.”

COOK FOUND OUT about Jan Merrill in early August. Her nephew, Heath Petsche, needed to spice up Merrill’s spirits, so he shared his household’s story with Peterson within the Nebraska volleyball workplace. He defined his aunt’s sickness, her love of Nebraska volleyball and the way a lot it harm her to not be in Lincoln for Volleyball Day in Nebraska.

He requested if Prepare dinner may ship his aunt a letter. Nebraska volleyball will get flooded with invitations to youth video games and birthday events, and sees its share of wierd requests. One man, for instance, mentioned he carved wood likenesses of the gamers, and requested for his or her mother and father’ addresses.

However when Prepare dinner heard Merrill’s story, he stopped what he was doing, sat down in his workplace and recorded a video.

Rob Merrill performed the message for his 66-year-old spouse as she lay in mattress. He forgot to unmute the video at first, however when Jan heard Prepare dinner’s voice and realized that he was speaking to her, “Her eyes received large,” Rob mentioned. “She busted out into this honest-to-God grin and you could possibly inform she was so amazed by it.

“The longer she thought of it, the extra she checked out it and the higher she felt. It was completely great to see her really feel that good in a scenario the place she feels that dangerous.”

Final week, Melissa Borer vacillated between pleasure over the sport and disappointment as a result of her mother could not be there to witness it. She mentioned that after they received the tickets, it was particularly significant as a result of they knew it might most likely be one among their final instances at a match collectively.

Rob mentioned his spouse spends most of her time sleeping now. However he hopes they’re going to be capable to watch the match collectively. The drive to Lincoln is not just like the outdated days for Borer, who lives a fast interstate drive away in Omaha. However Wednesday, she’ll sit, stand and cheer, persevering with the custom they began way back.

“We wish to inform everybody that we’re a volleyball state,” Borer mentioned, “and we’re pleased with it.”

ESPN’s Paula Lavigne contributed to this story.

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